Letters unlock doors for Maryland priest with Alzheimer’s disease
By George P. Matysek Jr.
BALTIMORE (CNS)—After 16 years visiting prisoners and ministering to parishioners in Maryland’s Allegany County, Father Milton A. Hipsley faces his own kind of confinement.
Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2008, the 72-year-old priest had to give up his cherished roles as pastor of St. Mary in Cumberland and as a prison chaplain. He now lives at St. Stephen’s Green on the campus of Mercy Ridge Retirement Community in Timonium, wearing a special bracelet so that medical staff can locate him.
But he has found a new way to minister—a method suggested to him by Baltimore Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien. It’s a ministry of pen and paper.
Father Hipsley’s letters to The Catholic Review, Baltimore archdiocesan newspaper, number more than 30, and are a sample of the hundreds he has written in the past two years.
Using black, blue and red pens, the priest tackles the importance of praying the rosary and contemplating nature. He extols the virtues of solitude, and urges prayer and kindness. Sometimes he asks for stamps, so that he can dispatch more letters.
Displaying his well-known humor, Father Hipsley sometimes signs his letters as “bald headed Father Milton Hipsley” or jots down “alive and kicking.”
Father Hipsley talked of his love for letter writing as he relaxed in a library near his room at Mercy Ridge. The stocky priest devotes much of his day to penning short missives, sending them to family, friends, former parishioners, newspaper reporters and strangers.
“It’s an expression of the you—of the self, so to speak,” he said. “When I reflect on my letters, they could get some insights.”
Ann M. Pugh, Father Hipsley’s sister, sees the letters as a godsend.
“It’s his only salvation,” she said. “He feels like he’s helping other people. I tell him that the people at his parish haven’t forgotten him.”
Carolee Lucas, secretary of St. Mary, said parishioners look forward to receiving their former pastor’s mail. He meant everything to their faith community, she said, and it has been difficult to see him leave.
“As soon as someone gets a letter, they share it with everyone,” said Lucas. “He was the kind of priest who was always here for the people. His religious vocation was his whole life. He could care less about the outside world.”
Joan Ruppenkamp, parish manager, said parishioners are heartened that Father Hipsley still thinks of them.
“In his mind, we are still a part of his life,” she said. “He left a hole here when he left.”
Father Hipsley earned a reputation as a champion of the underdog who held a special place in his heart for the incarcerated, Ruppenkamp and Lucas said.
Prisoners were grateful for his frequent visits, which included opportunities for confession. One prisoner confided that if there were ever a riot, he would throw himself on top of Father Hipsley to protect him. Using threads from his prison uniform, another inmate crafted a cross for the priest as a gift.
Soon after Father Hipsley retired from prison ministry and could no longer visit inmates, he stood outside the prison gates. Wearing a stole, he made the sign of the cross in the air and offered absolution to all of the men inside who were truly sorry for their sins but were unable to confess to a priest.
When he’s not writing letters, Father Hipsley spends time in a garden praying the rosary. Most of his prayers are for others, but he acknowledged that he asks God for help with everyday things.
“I pray, ‘Dear God, please help me in this situation,’” he said. “Where did I put my wallet?”
The priest also prays that more of his fellow clergymen would visit.
“If I’m ever in touch with a priest, it’s usually a situation where there’s an event,” he lamented, “but not like a friend who will come by and spend time with you. If I get near a priest, if he’s free, I’ll lean right next to his shoulder and make a good confession.”
Asked what advice he would have for those confronting major challenges, Father Hipsley said they should “concentrate on serious prayer.”
“If they are devout in their prayer,” he said, “then they have security in facing whatever their situation is that they are going to endure.”